When Wall Street began abandoning the Northeast's huge old factories some 25 years ago, the newly named "Rust Belt" made the news, creating for the nation a morbid pop-culture cliché: the laid-off steelworker. In the midst of this, sociologist Lois Weis toiled to grasp what was going on beyond stock footage of locked gates, hard hats and Tom Selleck moustaches: By interviewing nearly all the members of one industrial town's graduating class and their families, Weis gave a cultural context to blue-collar families' greatest change since, possibly, industrialization itself.
That book, published in 1990, was Working Class Without Work, and it was widely praised. Last year, Weis completed her much-anticipated follow-up: Class Reunion: The Remaking of the American White Working-Class.
When Weis talked to the seniors of "Freeway High" (presumably near Buffalo, where Weis is a professor at SUNY) in 1985, their town's main employer, a steel mill, was shutting down. For these laborers' children, severed from their families' traditional industrial trades, the future had to be something else, but what? Though some kids were exhilarated and others fatalistic, most were undecided.
Fifteen years later, in 2000, Weis sought to reconnect, and visited the town's doughnut shop, American Legion and local bars, calling roll for the class of '85. "Often the individual's father or mother was sitting there, or an uncle, a friend, or a friend of his [or] her parents, and I was immediately directed to the adjacent Deltasonic, Home Depot, convenience store, or electrician's shop." Weis writes that these sessions became like family reunions, sometimes with her being invited home for Sunday dinner. Listening to the old tapes brought tears, laughter, sadness and introspective reflection on the past 15 years -- for both the interviewees and Weis herself.
Class Reunion lets the subjects' own insight shine with lengthy quotations and engaging but understated biographical narrative. As a social scientist, Weis is obliged to give theory its due, which, for laypeople, bears skimming. Still, for a scholarly book, Class Reunion is impressively readable and moving.
Weis achieves a remarkable synthesis of macroeconomic analysis and ethnographic empathy. Alongside data, there are stories we recognize, like that of Suzanne, an educated woman who arguably suffers for dating men who share her background but not her profession.
In the words of folks like Suzanne, Class Reunion shows how the loss of good blue-collar jobs has changed gender roles, not because globo-megacorps are necessarily paying women more, but because today's companies are paying and employing working-class men less. Pink collars seem to make an easier transition than blue: Weis documents that women have had greater success getting degrees and "first-generation" white-collar jobs than have men from similar backgrounds. (Perhaps this is why, as Weis relates, some of her academic colleagues suggested that deindustrialization would mean the end of the working class per se. That smart people could take interest in a man in steel-toes but not the woman cleaning their offices is frightening.)
Since 1985, Freeway's young men have been forced to give up hope for the old industrial "family wage" that could keep a wife and kids contentedly at home. For women, family-wage jobs have never been abundant. Today, entering the workforce and scrabbling to build careers from the limited network available to working-class daughters doesn't always lead to self-reliance, either.
Though the old, industrially supported nuclear family (which should never be romanticized, Weis warns) has been pulled apart, economics have pushed men and women back together if they hope for a "settled" life. In Class Reunion, what so many Americans live -- carefully choreographed split-shift parenting, for example -- we've finally been given permission to know, intellectually.
And in this struggle for a decent life -- which might be undertaken in other household combinations, for instance a pair of sisters -- there's still tremendous heroism, especially in the many stories Weis tells of women who've survived the domestic violence seemingly worsened by the stress of deindustrialization.
If it weren't for these hard-won bits of turf claimed by such women, Weis points out, as an economic and cultural group the "working class" would not still exist today. Instead, most of Freeway's Class of 1985 would be worse off: They'd simply be the working poor.